After Town Hall: Evaluating the Current Dress Code

Clementine Sutter ’25 in Arts | December 9, 2022

Most Lawrentians would agree that last year, the dress code was virtually non-existent. With masking, social distancing, and Covid-19 testing largely occupying the minds of students and teachers, there wasn’t much room for seemingly more trivial discussions about the dress code. Rather than scrutinizing students’ sartorial choices, teachers prioritized the enforcement of health protocols and solutions to pandemic-related issues. However, as pandemic life has come to a close, an important question was brought to light once again: Does our current dress code require reform? 
The answer is yes. With a new school year comes new beginnings, including the introduction of a new set of rules for students to follow when it comes to their attire. Last year’s dress code limited students to fingertip-length skirts, straps that are two fingers wide, and leggings only when worn with long tops; now, however, students are just about only limited to non-athletic attire, allowing for a far broader scope of clothing options. 
While most students’ wardrobes admittedly haven’t changed much since last year, students are happy about the new freedom that these changes allow. “Although I do think students dress the same way as they did last year when the fingertip and leggings rules were in place…it just gives them a little more comfort to wake up in the morning and not have to worry about getting dress coded,” said Ellie Turchetta ’25. Reforming dress code rules also relieve students dress coded by teachers based on seemingly subjective standards. There is often little uniformity for whether or not a student will get dress coded—it really just depends on the teacher. According to Sarah Rodrigues ’25, “some do and some don't [enforce the dress code]…it's not a happy medium. Either you enforce it all the way or [not at all].” While great for students taught by teachers with more relaxed standards, the discrepancy between the strictness of teachers at the School also leaves certain students with disproportionately higher expectations for class dress, particularly when it comes to team psychs, participation in which is often limited by one’s slate of teachers on a given day. Ella Fessler ’25 argued that “all the teachers should all stick to one set of rules…I think the dress code shouldn't be subjective.”
But what’s the point of a dress code anyway? According to Dean of Students Devondra McMillan, “The way you dress for things actually affects your behavior and your perception of how those things go, [which is] why we have a dress code and why I think it's important for us to talk about it.” Many studies have actually shown that attire impacts one’s mindset. “That’s why I make a big deal about not wearing athletic clothes. Because when you put those on, you should be focused on practice and a different mindset and a different expectation than when you're getting ready to go sit in class and exercise the mind rather than the body,” said McMillan. She shared her own experience as a teenager in boarding school, where she was annoyed by the strict dress code that required a blazer and/or sweater every day. But in hindsight, she realized that the very dress code that seemed to be a bothersome inconvenience when she was younger had prepared her for the high expectations of the real world, equipping her with a wardrobe that she felt comfortable and confident in. “I want to make sure that our students are at least exposed to some of those expectations, because it tends to be that the higher up in society you go, the more harshly you are judged for those [choices.]” 
While at its core, the dress code might be meant to empower and dignify Lawrentiansin order to set them up for success in the future, it often inherently enforces discriminatory gender norms. Christine Wu ’25 admitted that getting dress-coded for violations such as skirt-length can “make girls uncomfortable” and can create an awkward situation for “both the student and teacher alike.” Rules like these also disproportionately affect girls with a certain body type, unfairly putting them in these awkward situations more than others. “My friends who had larger chests or had more curves were dress coded so much more frequently than other girls. We're all in high school, we're all already girls who are so conscious of our bodies…it’s really damaging,” said Constance Sharp ’24. A driving factor in this change was the overarching goal to eliminate some of this gendered-language around the dress code, shifting the focus from body-type to clothing choice. “[Dress coding] can turn interactions between students and faculty really negative in a way that interrupts our ability to build relationships with students,” McMillan said. “And [those relationships are] why we work here, because that's the part of the job that’s fun.”
McMillan explained that she “wanted to make sure that we had a [set of rules], but one that would eliminate some of the more fraught conversations that we have around dress code where students feel that we are in the process of body shaming them, when in fact, I want this to be a conversation about self-expression.” Lawrenceville is an old institution, but the School is adapting to the changing world by having these hard conversations, and “doing it overtly in an educational setting means we can [talk about] about all the ways in which some of those standards are problematic and the ways in which they are shifting in some really exciting ways. But I want you as students to be empowered to control your journey as opposed to having mishaps happen to you,” she said.